Coronavirus and “One Anothering”

Text: Hebrews 10:19-25

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” —Hebrews 10:24

In Italy, the entire country is on unprecedented lockdown due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The northern regions are seeing a “tsunami of patients,” and according to one spokesperson, the healthcare system is “one step from collapse.” Their Prime Minister has called it Italy’s “darkest hour.” So far, Italy has more than 15,000 infection cases with over a thousand deaths—the most of any country outside of China.

Churches haven’t been able to assemble together in weeks. I have been speaking with some of our Italian friends and the situation is quite demoralizing, as well as panic inducing. Francesca and her husband, Victor, are the Breakaway Outreach Italia representatives in the Veneto region, organizing our local sports outreach camps over the last three years. Francesca’s voice quivered as she shared from the heart the anguish of being in forced isolation.

“We are missing, like crazy, going to church and giving hugs to one another; talking personally, supporting one another, and praying together. It’s horrible. But we have faith it’s not going to last forever. When you have that freedom taken away from you, wow, it’s tough; but it’s useful, especially if you are a believer. When this time will be over, we will give more importance to the right thing and less importance to things that are not really important.”

Her message was edifying to our community here in Tennessee. Our privilege of being able to worship together, support one another, and flesh out God’s mission together is something we should never take lightly. Having people in our corner is something we can often underappreciate, until we are going through a season of suffering. As my heart breaks for what my friends are facing in Italy, I look around at the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I have the freedom of doing life and serving on mission together. I value that privilege! I love my tribe!

God’s Word admonishes us:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” —Hebrews 10:23-25

The ecclesiological connection in this passage has a markedly deeper meaning than just surfacely attending a church assembly. It speaks of a shared spiritual intimacy entrenched in missional togetherness with others—think of the allegorical bond depicted in Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Ring.” All of mythical Middle-Earth hangs in the balance of that fellowship’s faithfulness to their mission. More poignantly, ours is a fellowship of the one-anothers, with real eternal consequences attached to our gospel faithfulness.

There are over 60 “one another” commands in the New Testament that reveal God’s passion for this fellowship of the one-anothers: love one another (John 13:34), honor one another (Romans 12:10), build up one another (Romans 14:19), care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25), forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). It’s quite clear: God has made us for “one-anothering.” We find two of them in Hebrews 10:24-25: “stir up one another” and “encourage one another.”

God didn’t wire us for isolation. That early church knew that they needed each other to carry out Christ’s mission in the world. My friends in Italy understand, perhaps now more than ever, how much they need one another. None of us were created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in humble dependency upon God and loving interdependency with others. As one writer described it, “Our lives were designed to be community projects.” Reflect on your need for this kind of missional community as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for the privilege that comes to those who have been brought into a right relationship with you, through the redeeming blood of Jesus. Holy Spirit, help us to remember that our privilege comes with many interdependencies and responsibilities to our faith community. Teach us how to one-another well in light of your Word, in the power of your grace, for the sake of your gospel, and to the glory of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Are you the kind of person who easily assimilates into community, or does your personality find it more challenging?
  2. Our modern culture lauds self-sufficiency and independence. In what “communal” ways has Jesus called his followers to be countercultural?
  3. Sometimes even our church cultures/models/structures can breed individual consumers over communities that share intimate life and mission together. In what ways might this be course-corrected?
  4. What privilege comes to those who are part of the “house of God” (Hebrews 10:22)? With that privilege comes responsibility. What kind of behavior should privileged Christ-followers exhibit toward one another (Hebrews 10:24-25)?
  5. Is there a specific person God wants you to encourage or “stir up” toward love and good works this week, especially on the threshold of a global pandemic?

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If God Is With Me, Why Did This Happen?

Text: Judges 6:11-13, Isaiah 55:8-9

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” —Isaiah 55:8

Have you ever asked, “If God is with me, then why did this happen?” If so, you are surely not alone.

In today’s text (Judges 6:11-13), we find a young man named Gideon threshing wheat in a winepress. This is indeed a strange scene. It would be akin to practicing your golf swing in a closet. This was both difficult and humiliating for Gideon. Wheat was not normally threshed in a sunken place like a winepress. There wouldn’t be much room to do the work in such a confined space, as winepresses were vats sunk in the ground. Wheat would have been threshed in wide-open spaces, typically on a hilltop so the breeze could blow away the chaff. Yet this was Gideon’s little hideaway, his escape. He did his work here, for fear of the Midianites, who were accustomed to stealing the wheat once it had been threshed. Gideon’s daily grind is governed by fear, hardship, and humiliation.

Why such dire straits? Well, Gideon’s people had betrayed the Lord. They had turned their backs on God in a downward spiral of apostasy. God had not abandoned them, but they had abandoned Him. Consequently, their enemies—the Midianites—were crushing them. Though they were makers of their own demise, God was still faithful. He wasn’t done with Israel despite their failure, and He wanted to get their attention once again.

In his routine toil one day, Gideon gets an unexpected visit from the angel of the Lord. Some Bible scholars refer to this angel as the Lord’s designated messenger, while others describe it as a theophany—an Old Testament appearance of Jesus Christ, in human, bodily form, before His incarnation. What’s most significant is that God shows up in this time of distress and despair. Note that this visitation comes as Gideon is laboring diligently. He isn’t idle, fatalistic, or reserved to apathy because of the tough times his people are facing. Even though he questions the reason why all this misfortune has unfolded, and his faith might be staggering, he hasn’t given up. He is hard at work.

The angel says to him: “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” Sounds a bit out of place, being that Gideon doesn’t appear very lionhearted. He’s struggling to believe how God could be for him in all this drama. Maybe he looked back over his shoulder to see if there was another person to whom the angel spoke. We see his trepidation in his response: “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

I’m sure there has been a time or two when you felt like Gideon. If God is with me, then why has He allowed all this to happen? It feels more like He’s checked out and left me to my own survival instincts. There couldn’t be a bigger picture to all this madness; all that’s left is for me to just cope. You’ve been here, haven’t you? I sure have.

So what do you do when you find yourself in the winepress and it seems that God is very distant? Gideon was a simple man living a very ordinary life, going about the daily grind while facing a ton of adversity. As discouraged as he may have been, the angel apparently found him going about his daily duties with much diligence. Some of the most dynamic God-encounters in scripture happen when people are hard at work. They might not be expecting anything out of the ordinary, but their character and work ethic is setting them up for a divine appointment. Consider that Moses discovers his burning bush while keeping the flock. David was tending the sheep. Elisha was plowing the land. The apostles were fishing, washing, and mending their nets. As David Trapp says, “He usually appeared to the busy in visions, like as Satan doth to the idle in manifold temptations.”

I think the most important application in these precious few verses is not looking ahead at what God is going to do through Gideon in the extraordinary chapters of life (as we see further in the story), but Who God is in those very ordinary chapters of life. He is nearer than we think. He hasn’t checked out. He hasn’t abandoned us to ourselves. Thank you, Lord!

Gideon doesn’t have all the spiritual answers in this moment. He can’t understand how God could still be for him when his circumstances are shouting that God is very, very far away. We are left to a mystery of what the Almighty must’ve seen usable in this guy. We see fear. Trepidation. Doubts. Questions. In himself, Gideon sees inferiority and victimhood. But God saw something we, or Gideon, can’t see. He always does. Let that sink in as you seek to abide in Him this week.”

PRAYER

God, You haven’t left us to face this drama alone. You are faithful despite our failures and fickle hearts. You pursue us despite our trepidation, fears, and inhibitions. You never change, though our faith can sometimes feel like shifting sand being pulled out by the tide of doubts and uncertainties. The one constant is Your presence, Holy Spirit. Thank you for Your nearness, regardless of what my circumstances roar. I trust You with the unknown, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you had a Gideon-like “If God is for me then why…?” moment?
  2. In what ways can you relate to Gideon’s circumstances, doubts, or wavering faith?
  3. Read Isaiah 55:8-9. What does this tell us about God’s perspective on our lives?
  4. Why do we tend to feel we should have all the answers to life’s drama? What says more about our faith, having all the right theological answers or trusting God’s heart when we don’t?
  5. Where might you need to stop searching for specific answers to certain circumstances and trust more in God’s ever abiding presence in the those circumstances?

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Prone to Wander

Text: Psalm 119:9-16

“With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” —Psalm 119:10

Robert Robinson was a fatherless teenager when the powerful preaching of George Whitefield first influenced him to surrender to Christ. This uneducated barber-turned-poet preacher, described as a perpetual wanderlust, often wrestled with his beliefs and frequently moved between denominations and theological camps. In his twenties, he wrote the hymn “Come, thou Fount of every blessing” (1758), in which he confessed that his heart was “Prone to wander… Prone to leave the God I love.”

The hymn as a whole is a great testimony to the grace of God that had saved him, notwithstanding his nomadic heart. It has resonated with many a heart for more than two hundred and fifty years, attesting to God’s faithfulness in times of distraction, doubts, and drifting. Robert Robinson wasn’t alone.

In ancient Israel, the psalmist cried out: “With my whole heart I have sought You; oh, let me not wander from Your commandments!” (Psalm 119:10)

Though we may not deliberately choose to wander, our hearts do tend to drift. Like Paul, we sometimes find ourselves doing what we despise (Romans 7:19)—lusting after the things of this world, judging others though we ourselves don’t want to be judged, gossiping rather than edifying, losing our cool and getting caught up in the moment, doubting God is going to come through for us though He has never failed us in the past. It’s in these times that we desperately need a Rescuer from our wandering. How grateful we can be for a God of mercy—a compassionate heavenly Father—whose grace is all-sufficient and never exhausted.

In that hymn, Robinson also wrote: “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God.” He knew that though we turn to our own way again and again, God keeps bringing us back. We must daily bind our wandering hearts to Christ. Psalm 138:8 speaks of His constant shepherding as the remedy to my drifting nature: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

PRAYER

God, you know my wandering heart. You know it better than I know myself. Thank you for pursuing me even in times of drift, doubt, and distraction. Holy Spirit, teach my heart to align with you more, and to wander less. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What causes friendships or other relationships to deteriorate?
  2. What advice does this psalm give to its readers? (Psalm 119:9-16)
  3. What do you think is meant by “storing up” God’s Word in our hearts? (v.11)
  4. What benefits can we expect from disciplined meditation on God’s Word?
  5. In what ways will you aim to store up God’s Word in your heart this week?

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When Facing Your Red Sea

Text: Exodus 13:17 – 14:14

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” —Exodus 14:13

Dr. George Campbell Morgan tells of a man whose shop burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The next morning he arrived at work carrying a table, which he set up amid the charred ruins. On it he placed a sign that read, “Everything lost except wife, children, and hope. Business as usual tomorrow morning.”

It’s been said that the acid test of character is determined by how much discouragement you can take without giving up. God may allow hardship into our lives to shape something in us, but never without the aim of showing off His power and might.

When God led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, He didn’t lead them by the shortest route, or most convenient, but the one that would shape their hearts the most. Unmovable from their side, the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. He led Israel into what seemed to be a trap. There was no way of escape except the way they had come in, and the Egyptian army had that path blocked.

At one point, God even commanded the Israelites to turn backward as if to bait Pharaoh into pursuing them. Seems a bit strange if God was only in it for Israel’s good. But there is more to the story—and to our story as well—God isn’t just in it for our good, He is in it for His glory. God promised that through this seemingly counterintuitive move “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:1-4). God would prove Himself to them throughout every uncertain twist and turn of this journey.

God is not just working for our good and wellbeing (Romans 8), but chiefly for His glory to be demonstrated through the entire process of our lives. Each day that we live and breathe is an opportunity for God to flex His muscles in every circumstance, from our most disheartening setbacks to our most rousing victories. The Almighty is shaping our heart to love Him and trust Him.

We tend to spend much of our days striving in our own strengths, abilities, and sufficiency. God certainly gave us talents and abilities to use for His glory, but He wants us operating and functioning in a dependence on Him. He wants us to learn to trust what He can do through us, as our cloud by day and our pillar by night. We often yearn for the easy path, the most convenient. Yet we frequently find ourselves on an inconveniently rugged, agitating and adverse path toward our promised land. What’s the deal?

Nature itself teaches us that it’s impossible to succeed without going through adversity. If a seedling tree has to struggle its way up through rocks to get to sunlight and air, then wrestle with storms and frost to survive, you can be sure of one thing: its root system will be strong and its timber resilient. If you’re successful and haven’t experienced hardship, you can be sure someone else has experienced it for you. And if you’re experiencing adversity without succeeding, there’s a good chance somebody else will succeed because of the price you paid. As Brad Pitt says in the film Moneyball, “The first one through the wall always gets bloody.” In any case, there’s no achievement without adversity.

It made sense for Israel to be afraid. They could see Pharaoh’s armies on one side and the Red Sea on the other. Maybe you find yourself facing similar disheartening odds. Just know beloved, your God is up to something that transcends your human understanding. Though Israel’s situation looked bleak, God assures them that the coming events, regardless of how they are perceived, are governed by his power and purposes. The Lord does tell Moses that he will “get glory over Pharaoh,” but He does not tell him just how that deliverance will be accomplished. It requires faith with every step and trust in every moment.

Between the time of the plagues in Egypt and the journey to Sinai, the events at the Red Sea show Moses as a maturing leader who learns to trust in the word of the Lord (Exodus 14:13–14), as they also illustrate Israel’s need to do the same (Exodus 14:10–12). How about you, my friend, are you maturing in your faith and trust in God’s providence for your life? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Lord, You are in this for my good and Your glory. Therefore, You will never abandon me. Your love will never fail. I rejoice in your salvation alone. No matter what stands in front of me, You have already gone ahead and You will faithfully take me through. I praise You for Your goodness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What was God’s reason for directing the Israelites toward the Red Sea? (Exodus 13:17-18)
  2. What did the Israelites cry to Moses when the Egyptians came after them? (Exodus 14:10-12)
  3. How do you imagine God felt when the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt?  
  4. What do we have to do to be obedient to God even when we don’t feel like it?
  5. How can you give your fears to God this week?

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Daddy Is On Deck

Text: Matthew 8:23-27

And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.” —Matthew 8:26

Some years ago, a ship was making this transatlantic voyage from Liverpool to New York. On one particular night, at a time when most of the passengers were asleep, the ship was hit by a “mega” Atlantic storm. The wind and the waves were so violent they actually tipped the ship almost on its side. Down below, a little girl was among many passengers who were thrown out of their beds. But there was one thing different about this particular passenger. Her daddy was the captain. While she was all bleary eyed, she asked her mom the only thing she really wanted to know about the situation, “Is daddy on deck?” Her mom said, “Well yes he is, honey.” The little girl’s response was right to the point, “Then I’m going back to bed.”

In Matthew 8, Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a violent storm. The Sea of Galilee is well known for its sudden, vicious storms. The severity of this storm was evident in the fact that the disciples (many were experienced fishermen on this lake) were terrified, crying out “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Because Jesus had been sleeping during the tempest they took him for being unaware of the crisis in the moment. Isn’t that so… us? Too often we think that God doesn’t get the gravity of our circumstances, the depth of our need, or the urgency of our distress. We think He is sleeping on us! So we conjure up bigger, more impressive words in our prayer talk to try and persuade Jesus to see it our way. But the problem lay not in the perception of Jesus, but in our perception—we don’t see things God’s way.

You see, faith is acknowledging the total authority of Jesus over this situation. That’s what the disciples could not do in their storm. The grammar of the phrase “But He was asleep” conveys a dramatic contrast; the storm raged, the disciples panicked, but He was asleep. They acted as if Jesus didn’t have authority over the storm, but He did! He spoke to it like a parent would speak to a child… and “it was calm.”

Then they marveled.

Jesus rebuked their fear and unbelief, not their request or waking Him. We shouldn’t think that Jesus was in a bad mood from being awakened. He was upset at their fear, because fear and unbelief go together. When we trust God as we should trust Him, there is little room left for fear.

So many of our faith tensions come down to WHO we believe has the final authority in a given situation. Will the company decide it? The economy? Is this disease going to have the final word? Your spouse? Your kids? Your feelings? Or is everything in this situation totally under the authority of your Savior, Jesus Christ?

If your faith rests in the authority of Christ, then you can make that your bottom line and the panic is over. The peace that defies logic is kicking in. There’s an unexplainable sense of “it is well with my soul” and a calm that comes when you settle where the final authority is in your situation. And the shield of faith will extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one, because Satan cannot touch something that you’ve completely given to Jesus.

Like that little girl blown around by a dangerous storm, all you need to know is if your Father is on deck. Because there’s nothing He can’t handle, you can rest in peace. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Father, thank you for peace in this storm. Your authority will have the final word in every situation. I will not let the wind and the waves dictate my feelings—I trust You! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When was the last time you were speechless?
  2. How do you typically react when circumstances get out of control?
  3. What surprise did the boaters encounter in this scene? (Matthew 8:24)
  4. How did Jesus reply to the disciples’ expression of fear? (8:26)
  5. This week, what specific ways can you demonstrate your belief that Jesus will see you through the storms in your life?

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Surviving a Place Called Pain

Text: Matthew 26:17-46

“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” —Matthew 26:42

“Pain is just a place where the will has been broken.” Those are the lyrics of a NEEDTOBREATHE song that keep coming back to me. We tend to leak streams of toxicities when we misinterpret our pain. In some cases those streams might roll into oceans of bitterness. That’s why the old saying rings true that hurt people hurt people.

None of us could ever fathom the agony that Christ endured in the Garden of Gethsemane, but as Oswald Chambers writes, at least we need not misunderstand it:

“The agony in Gethsemane is the agony of the Son of God in fulfilling His destiny as the Saviour of the world. The veil is drawn aside to reveal all it cost Him to make it possible for us to become sons of God. His agony is the basis of the simplicity of our salvation. The Cross of Christ is a triumph for the Son of Man. It was not only a sign that Our Lord had triumphed, but that He had triumphed to save the human race. Every human being can get through into the presence of God now because of what the Son of Man went through.”

Gethsemane is where Jesus faced an exceedingly dark night of the soul—betrayal, anguish, alienation, and loneliness, followed by a torturous death. Here he shared in the human condition, suffering as a high priest who can sympathize not just with some of our hurts, but every last ounce of our pain (Hebrews 4:15). That sweat, in what became “like great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” is a picture of God’s son absorbing all of your earthly sorrow—even to the point of death (Matthew 26:38). The words in the Greek are expressive of the greatest misery imaginable.

To rescue us from ourselves, Jesus had to go through a place of intense pain. There was no other way to save us, but for Him to make our anguish his own. Suffering was part of His path of salvation. His passion wasn’t just physical torture, but intense rejection, emotional isolation, and haunting feelings of abandonment—the true existential condition of humanity.

Chambers believed that our own ‘Gethsemane’ experiences bring us into identification with the Lord himself, as we share in the fellowship of His suffering. Gethsemane literally means “oil press.” There, olives from the neighborhood were pressed under the intense weight of a beam-press to force the oil out. Olive oil was an important part of Jewish culture because of its many uses for seasoning food, healing wounds, and reversing the effects of poisons. Our own personal Gethsemanes have a similar affect. They press out our self-will so that we can flow from our Father’s pure will, and bring healing ingredients to a hurting world.

God never intends for our pain to make us bitter. He wants our self-will to be broken, in the same way that Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Paul said, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)

God is trying to do something redemptive with your pain. He is breaking your earthly self-will so that you flow with vitality in His divine will. Are you rightly interpreting your oil press? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Father, not my will but your will be done. May this prayer never cease to be the anthem of my days, the surrender of my heart, the oxygen in my lungs, the obedience of my feet, and the servitude of my hands. Press me and pour me out for your glory, over and over again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In what particular situations is it hardest for you to stay awake?
  2. How do you react emotionally and physically when you are facing extreme stress?
  3. What kind of warning did Jesus give Peter, and how did Jesus react when He found His disciples sleeping a second time? (Matthew 26:40-44)
  4. What is amazing about Christ’s attitude and prayer?
  5. Why is it hard to give up our self-will? What might be holding you back from completely surrendering your present circumstances to God’s will?

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Losing Your Life to Find It

Text: Matthew 10:1-42

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” —Matthew 10:39

It’s a pivotal moment in Radiator Springs.

Lightning McQueen, the self-enamored prima donna in Disney Pixar’s film Cars, is lost in a town with strange people and such dissimilar lifestyles. Yet as fate would have it, he must categorically lose everything he idolizes as “success” in order to truly find himself. If you’ve seen this classic, you know that it’s life-changing for the rookie speedster.

In Matthew 10, Jesus has handpicked his twelve disciples and sends them out on a short-term mission to the “lost sheep” of the house of Israel, proclaiming Christ’s kingdom message like sheep among wolves. The disciples are given authority and power to accomplish their mission. In his commissioning instructions, Jesus tells them that their mission will be a difficult one. There will be persecutions. They will be hated. They will be flogged and suffer greatly for the gospel. They are not to fear (Matthew 10:26-31).

Interestingly, there is no mention of them preaching in the synagogues, only being “scourged” in them (Matthew 10:17). This was a house-to-house, open field, neighbor-to-neighbor, street-preaching ministry. Before telling his disciples about the rewards of faithfulness, Jesus exhorts them about the cost of following him: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:38–39)

You really never truly find yourself until you get lost in something that is much bigger than yourself. Before we become Christians, everything about God’s kingdom seems strange, even alien to our nature and culture. After we become Christians, and get lost in his kingdom culture, we wonder why we didn’t find this so-called lost life much sooner. What a treasure—to forsake everything for the sake of his call!

Striving to have it all figured out in life is, might I say, overrated. The older I get the more I come to terms with the reality that control is only an illusion. Jesus calls us to a life of surrender—waving the white flag in all of our misapprehensions, conceding our artifices about being in control, and counter intuitively yielding ourselves to a great and glorious unknown.

Crucifixion is a shocking metaphor for discipleship. Because crucifixion itself was not an uncommon sight in Roman Palestine, this “cross-bearing” language would have been piercing with clarity. Such an extreme statement—likening discipleship with the revulsion of crucifixion, something far too explicit to be mentioned in good-mannered company—must have riveted the disciples. Yet they knew unambiguously what that cross meant. A disciple must deny himself (die to self-will), take up his cross (embrace God’s will, no matter the cost), and follow Jesus.

There was no looking back when you took up your cross, and your only hope was in resurrection life. The disciple lives in this paradox. One can only find his or her life by losing it, and can only live by dying.

Where does the cross of Jesus demand a death sentence in your life today? Is it in a posture of self-sufficiency? An unforgiving heart? An angry demeanor? A fear to be his witness in a confrontational world? A reluctance to go all-in with God’s calling on your life? An addiction or a stronghold? The lust for pleasure or the ambition to be in control? The need for recognition, attention, or popularity? When a person took a cross in Jesus’ day, it was for one reason: to die. The ancient Roman cross did not negotiate, did not compromise, and did not make deals. Your resurrection life is waiting on the other side of self-denial—only after we take up our cross to follow Jesus do we truly find ourselves, and become awakened to His glorious resurrection.

PRAYER

Lord, in order to truly follow you, I am commanded to deny myself and take up a cross. Where do you demand this death sentence in my daily journey, my life pursuits, and my interactions with others? I come not with any negotiations or terms for specific outcomes, but only to die to the self that demands its own way. Show me my cross and grant me the power to lay down my life for the resurrection You long to bring through this radical submission. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why do you think certain people are antagonistic to the gospel?
  2. What radical requirements did Christ make of those who would follow Him, and what did Jesus promise those who obeyed Him fully? (10:37-42)?
  3. What things act as security blankets in your life and keep you from stepping out in faith?
  4. What do you think it means to lose your life for Christ’s sake? How might that look in your pursuits and interactions this week?
  5. What promises from this chapter can you meditate on this week to make you a more effective minister for Christ?

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Will You Be the Tree or the Shrub This Year?

Text: Psalm 1:1-6, Jeremiah 17:5-8

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.” —Jeremiah 17:7

Do you want to experience a “happy” new year? Psalm 1:1-6 makes it very clear what will determine that, by giving us two pictures of contrasting dispositions: The God-abiding person and the self-abiding person. The God-abiding person finds his or her sufficiency in Christ. The self-abiding person trusts only in self. The former trusts God as the source of life while the latter thinks it is in oneself to ultimately dictate life’s outcomes. Though initially they might be standing in the same physical place together (living in the same home, working in the same office, studying in the same class, etc.), the inevitable destinations couldn’t be more polarizing or further apart.

I’ve read that there is a courthouse in Ohio that stands in a unique location. Raindrops that fall on the north side of the building go into Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while those falling on the south side go into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. At precisely the point of the peak of the roof, just a gentle puff of wind can determine the destiny of the raindrops. It will ultimately make a difference of more than 2,000 miles in their final destination.

We all might be starting at the same place on a calendar, but our eventual destinations this year are contingent upon one thing: What, or who, is going to be our sufficiency? Our downstream coordinates will be revealed markedly on December 31, 2020. The fruit of our lives doesn’t lie.

In Psalm 1:1, we read, “Blessed is the man” whose “delight is in the law of the Lord.” The Hebrew word esher is here translated “blessed,” which has the idea of happiness or contentment. Esher is a form of the Hebrew word ashar, which in its root means “to be straight” or “to be right”; therefore, “blessed is the man” speaks of the happiness, the blessedness, and the contentment in the life of the man or woman who is right or “straight” with God. This person finds his or her delight in the “law of the Lord”—hungering for the word of God in their daily lives.

The words of Jesus remind us that, “man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The person abiding in God’s word is like the image of the tree in Psalm 1, which nevertheless thrives even in a dry climate because of its constant water supply. It flourishes even in times of crisis. This tree bears fruit, not for itself, but for others. When the faithful prospers, it is never for self, alone, but succeeds in bringing benefit and blessing to others.

In a similar image in Jeremiah 17:8, this tree doesn’t fear when heat comes or become anxious in the year of drought, “for its leaves remain green… it does not cease to bear fruit.” In contrast, Jeremiah likens the self-abiding person as a cursed “shrub,” who “shall not see any good.” He will be alone and without resources when disaster comes. The contrast is in high definition color—one is green and flourishing, while the other is brown and withering.

What will be your disposition in 2020—the God-abiding life, or the self-abiding life?

PRAYER

Lord, your word is clear that the God-abiding person and the self-abiding person have two very distinctly different outcomes. I want my sufficiency to be found in You alone. Reveal areas of my life where self tries to assert its own way. Help me, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, to crucify the flesh and all of its desires, that I might live and flourish in the Spirit of Christ in this new year. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In Psalm 1:1-6, how are the “righteous” and the “wicked” different?
  2. What does a God-abiding person do a lot? How does the psalm writer connect delight and meditation?
  3. What does the image of the tree tell us about the God-abiding person?
  4. What differences are implied by the references to “tree” and “chaff”? In what ways might a God-abiding person be rewarded? (Psalm 1:3-5)
  5. What will you do this week to have a God-abiding disposition rather than a self-abiding one?

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Advent Devotions (Week 4): Love and a Prostitute

Text: Hosea 14:1-9

“Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.” —Hosea 6:1 ESV

On the last Sunday of Advent, we reflect on scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about God’s love for us. God’s love undergirds the whole story of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and the ongoing process of restoration.

Hosea is an Old Testament love story—just not the kind of romance you might be familiar with. Essentially, God told the prophet Hosea to pursue and marry a prostitute (“wife of whoredom”), and then go and take her back again after she proved to be unfaithful in marriage. The same Hebrew term indicating illicit sexual behavior in this passage (Hosea 1:2) is the one Moses uses in Genesis 38:24 to refer to Tamar’s posing as a shrine prostitute in order to entice Judah. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, bears this label, as she becomes a woman characterized by sexual infidelity.

Gomer’s adulteress ways are prophetic symbolism of a people who have committed “great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” This is the first of a series of expressions in Hosea where God puts himself in the place of a forsaken human lover.

In this story, Israel had become a “luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” The more God’s chosen people prospered, the more their altars were defiled. Their heart was “false” (Hosea 10:1-2). Instead of shepherding the people, their priests had plunged into full-fledged idolatry (10:5). Their worship had become vain words and empty oaths. They had forgotten their God (Hosea 13:6). God said, “The more they were called, the more they went away” (11:2), and “My people are bent on turning away from me” (11:7). The coldness of their spiritual apathy and the callousness of their infidelity were necessitating judgment. “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,” the Lord pronounced (13:8). Soon after Hosea prophesied, Israel was ravaged, destroyed, and carried off to Assyria (2 Kings 18:9–12). But this was not to be the end for God’s people in the land, as a return is promised (Hosea 3:5), which was fulfilled when exiled Judah returned from Babylonian captivity.

Hosea culminates with a plea for unfaithful Israel to abandon its idols and return to the Lord. “Break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12, 14:1-2). God assures them that He is greater than their idols, and He is greater than their failures. His love overshadows their infidelity. His compassion breaks through the darkness of sin and shame, exposing their guilt while promising them a restored future—“They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow” (Hosea 14:7).

It’s ironic that such a depiction of adultery and infidelity ends up contrasting the greatest love story ever known to man—“This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This love has chased after you throughout your entire life, even in your most unlovable moments and most deplorable seasons. This love took the punishment of your sins so that you can be free.

Advent is a time to recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming to rescue us from all of our personal idols. He intends to shatter our altars of hedonism and self-indulgence. He wants to free us from our spiritual apathy and lukewarmness. He wants to break up the fallow ground of our hearts and annihilate our narcissism. No matter how unfaithful you have been—the depth of your shame, or the guilt you bear—God is rewriting your story. It’s a story about His redemptive love, and a story so much bigger than your failures. As He pursues you and reminds you that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has obliterated your sin and paid your ransom in full, make room for His love this Christmas. Let Jesus liberate you from every infidelity and every idol—every trapping of the world that promises fulfillment while delivering vanity. Make room for your heart to be recaptured by the passion of your first love.

Are you making room for Jesus this Christmas? Think about that as you seek to abide in His love this week.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, my life would look so different apart from your love. Thank you for the advent of your love. This week, help me to reflect more intentionally over how my life has benefitted from of your love and to consider how I can be more practical in sharing that love with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What qualities do you cherish about the person who loves you most?
  2. How is God’s faithfulness to us an example of the way we should treat others?
  3. What are the “idols” in your life from which you should turn away?
  4. What loyalties, things, or relationships do you need to hand over to God?
  5. How can you show love and acceptance to someone in your network of relationships who might be in desperate need of forgiveness or affirmation?

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Advent Devotions (Week 3): Joy and Rejoicing

Text: Luke 1:26-56

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” —Philippians 4:4

The third week of Advent is Joy. Of course, joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is an emotion that is contingent upon pleasant and conditional circumstances—it is fickle and can be fleeting; joy is the fruit of activating your faith in any given circumstance—good or bad. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that can be sustained through any and all circumstances when our faith is resting in the Almighty.

The mystery of joy is that we can experience it even in seasons of pain, loss, or fear. This year has been an exceedingly challenging year for our family. We’ve dealt with unique spiritual battles, physical illnesses, and the tragic loss of Cindy’s sister to cancer. We have found that grief doesn’t have to be the absence of joy. Joy can be sustained despite the throes of sorrow and pain, because we know that God has a redemptive plan for our troubles (2 Corinthians 4:17). We grieve over the loss of our dear loved one, but we rejoice in the fact that death has been swallowed up in victory—a cancer-stricken mortal body was overtaken by an immortal and indestructible body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57). The Almighty has conquered the grave and in that we rejoice!

Joy is celebrating when you want to fear and doubt. It’s activating your faith when you want to run and hide. Imagine being in Mary’s shoes that very first Christmas with all those unknowns. You are an unwed teenage girl—a virgin still—and yet it’s been proclaimed by an angel that you are with child. She had so much to fear: the supernatural mysteries of her pregnancy, the implications of giving birth to the son of God, the scandalizing of her name, the potential rejection of her fiancée, the ridicule of her family. But what’s the first thing the angel says in this divine encounter? “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Don’t miss the etymology of the word “Greetings.” It’s not just code for a casual hello. The Greek verb is chairō and it means “to be cheerful, to be well, to bid farewell or God speed, to hail, or to rejoice.” Gabriel is speaking (declaring) joy into Mary’s circumstances, letting her know that she doesn’t have to serve her fears, but she can trust the Almighty to take care of her; it’s overwhelming in the moment but everything is going to be okay. Joy is the fruit of rejoicing. Rejoicing is not an emotion or feeling; it’s a deliberate act of the will declaring its trust in God’s promises and assurances. It’s what Paul was doing from a prison cell and admonishing us to do in every circumstance (Philippians 4:4-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Mary gets it. She tunes her heart to worship and sings a powerful song of praise in the middle of all her fears, uncertainties, and feelings of aloneness. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she sings. It’s a declaration of faith in the One Whose grip will not let her go. Her chorus has at least twelve allusions to Old Testament promises, implying that Mary was well versed in the Scriptures. God’s Word was on her heart and it came out through her song.

During this time of advent, we are reminded that circumstances don’t have to dictate our joy. To rejoice is to abide in Him regardless of our circumstances. We can trust that God is going to come through because He has given us His Word and His faithful résumé. He’s never failed you (Psalm 37:25). As my old friend used to say, “He’s brought you through the ocean, He won’t let you drown in the bathtub.”

We have a choice when it comes to rejoicing. We can choose to focus on all the worries that consume us, or we can choose to focus on the faithfulness of Christ that ultimately consumes all of those fears. We can rejoice in all circumstances! Begin to do that this week by speaking (declaring) joy over your given circumstances, like the angel did with Mary. Do that by tuning your heart to worship God, like Mary did, singing about His faithfulness throughout every generation. This Christmas, may the real joy of Christ overtake you as you choose to abide in His unfailing love and unwavering promises.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of your son, Jesus, who came to be the Savior for everyone who trusts in him. Fill our hearts with fresh wonder of what that first Christmas means for us today. Help us to rejoice in all that Jesus has done to save us, and help us to share the great joy of this good news with others you put in our path. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why do you think some people have a heightened sense of joy around Christmas time? (family, festivities, gifts, parties, etc.)
  2. If you had the skill and opportunity, how would you tell the world about a life-changing experience: write a song, publish a book, make a documentary, produce a movie, etc.? Why?
  3. What kind of attitude was apparent in Mary’s response to the angel’s visit and what did Mary’s final statement to Gabriel show about her relationship with God? (Luke 1:38)
  4. What attributes of God are extolled in the first part of Mary’s song? (Luke 1:46-49) How did Mary describe herself in her song? (1:47-48) In what ways can you develop the kind of humble spirit that Mary had?
  5. What correlation does God’s Word factor into our ability to rejoice? In what practical ways can you choose to rejoice this week, regardless of your circumstances? (write out Bible verses on memory cards, have a specific worship playlist, write in your journal, have conversations with others, have each family member share one thing they are trusting God to handle, )

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